Libyan rebel forces advanced westward with support from NATO air strikes on Sirte, the hometown of Muammar Qaddafi, as the Western alliance prepared to take over command of military operations from the U.S.
The rebels were fighting within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of Sirte, and their scouts reported that the road ahead was heavily mined, the Associated Press said. Nine blasts rocked the coastal town today as planes were heard above, according to an Agence France-Presse reporter in Sirte. In the west, government forces continued to bomb Misrata after announcing a cease-fire in the rebel-held town, Al Jazeera television reported.
“Russia and other countries skeptical that at least some members of the coalition intend to enforce regime change rather than merely a no-fly zone will continue to object from the sidelines,” David Hartwell, an analyst in London with Lexington, Massachusetts-based IHS Global Insight, wrote in a research note today. “With opposition territorial gains set to continue against this backdrop, the issue of what happens if and when the rebels reach Tripoli is beginning to loom large, with Qaddafi appearing to have few options beyond fighting or fleeing.”
The advance on Sirte extends the rebel offensive along the coast that saw them recapture the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf, helped by the U.S.-led aerial bombardment of government positions in the area. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said yesterday it has taken over military control of the operation. A U.S. official said the mission is restricted to the United Nations mandate to protect civilians and enforce an arms embargo, and doesn’t include aiding rebel forces seeking to recapture territory from Qaddafi.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said allied strikes on Qaddafi’s troops are an intervention in a civil war and violate the UN resolution that authorized use of force, RIA Novosti reported today.
The coalition has been seeking to push Qaddafi’s forces out of cities including Misrata. French fighter aircraft struck the Qaddafi forces’ armored vehicles and weapons near Misrata and Zintan yesterday, according to France’s Defense Ministry website. Misrata has been besieged by pro-Qaddafi forces for several weeks.
The city of Sebha, south of Tripoli, was bombed today and several homes were destroyed, said the official Libyan news agency, JANA.
The conflict in Libya, holder of Africa’s largest crude reserves, has pushed oil prices up about 25 percent since it began last month. NATO’s intervention comes as unrest spreads throughout the Middle East, with deadly clashes between protesters and regime supporters in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan, following the ouster of oppressive regimes by popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia.
Crude oil fell for a third day in New York on speculation that the rebels’ territorial gains may hasten a resolution to the crisis. Crude for May delivery declined $1.64, or 1.6 percent, to $103.76 a barrel at 9:30 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Some Sirte tribes that are traditionally loyal to Qaddafi declared they were siding with the rebel fighters, who met with little resistance as they approached the outskirts of the city, Arish Saeed, a journalist in Sirte, told Al Arabiya television. The information couldn’t be independently verified because phone lines in Libya were down.
Rebels advancing from the east have taken control of the town of Nawfaliyah, about 100 kilometers from Sirte, the Benghazi-based Brnieq newspaper reported citing its correspondent.
NATO’s supreme allied commander, U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, will take charge of the alliance mission in Libya, and decisions on what targets to hit will be determined by the council’s military leaders, the U.S. official said yesterday. Allied strikes yesterday targeted the capital, Tripoli, as well as Sirte, the AP said, following attacks on government tanks, artillery and soldiers that enabled the rebels to continue their westward advance and enter Brega and Ras Lanuf.
“Transition from coalition to NATO forces has been and will be a seamless handover, with no gap in the effort to do what it takes to protect the people of Libya,” Canadian Air Force General Charles Bouchard, in command of the allied effort, told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels today via a video link from his command center in Naples, Italy.
In Washington yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC’s “This Week” that implementation of the no-fly zone over Libya was complete and had “eliminated” Qaddafi’s ability to strike back at rebel-held cities. Now the no-fly zone can be “sustained with a lot less effort,” Gates said.
Libyan state-run television accused the allied attacks of causing a “massacre” among civilians in Ajdabiya as their warplanes sought to provide air cover for the rebels. Gates said coalition forces have been “extremely careful” and cited U.S. intelligence reports that Qaddafi was taking the bodies of people he had killed and putting them at sites attacked by the alliance forces.
U.S. President Barack Obama will give an address late today about the American and allied military action in Libya.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the U.K.- based Guardian newspaper that his country is prepared to act as a mediator to pursue an early cease-fire in Libya, and said talks are under way with Qaddafi’s government and the opposition’s Transitional National Council.
Qatar today recognized the council as the legitimate government of Libya, the official Qatar News Agency reported. France announced similar recognition earlier this month.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government denied reports that its security forces fired on protesters in Daraa as they demonstrated against emergency rule, state TV said. Violence erupted around the country after a clampdown on protesters in the southern city.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh said no compromise had been reached on his future in talks with Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Al Arabiya reported. Al-Qirbi said earlier that he had hoped to reach an agreement on Saleh’s departure following months of anti-government demonstrations and the defection of ministers, generals and diplomats from his regime.
In an interview with Al Arabiya television, Saleh described Yemen as a “time bomb” that could disintegrate into civil war, and in a speech to officials from his party yesterday the president said he will make “no more concessions.”
Saleh, a U.S. ally against al-Qaeda militants based in his country, dismissed Mohammed Ali Mohsen, a military commander for the country’s eastern region who defected to join the protesters a week ago, the Defense Ministry said on its website today. Al-Qaeda was blamed by the Yemeni government for an explosion that killed dozens of people today at an ammunition factory, the official Saba news agency said, citing an unidentified official.
In Egypt, the army council that has been in charge of the country since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last month announced today that parliamentary elections will be held in September. The council will remain in power until a presidential election, which hasn’t yet been scheduled.
Saudi Arabia, where activists have campaigned online for more democracy and civil rights without taking to the streets in mass protests, said today that it will hold municipal elections on Sept. 22, the first nationwide voting in the kingdom since 2005.